Suns give Willie Green a bittersweet end to 1st season as Pelicans coach
Willie Green went from sitting by Monty Williams’ side on the Phoenix Suns’ bench last July to facing the reality of leading a rebuilding basketball team.
Green went 1-12 in the first 13 games as an NBA head coach with the New Orleans Pelicans, but his steady demeanor — much like Williams’ own — and patience paid off. Green’s team recovered, got relatively healthy and made a midseason trade for point guard C.J. McCollum that coincided with the continuity a talented coach can build within a single season.
The Pelicans made the play-in tournament as the ninth-best team in the Western Conference, won two games and then put a scare into the top-ranked Suns over a six-game first-round series. Green’s first year as an NBA head coach came to an end Thursday with Phoenix eliminating New Orleans with a 115-109 win in Game 6.
And then the emotions came pouring out when he met with his forever teammates, coaches and brothers.
“One of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do in basketball is coach against people that I love and care about. That was tough,” Green told reporters after his team’s season ended at the hands of the Suns.
An assistant coach for the Suns last season, Pelicans first-year coach Willie Green shows some emotion after a hard-fought series against his former team.
What a moment. pic.twitter.com/8EdY42uxP4
— NBA (@NBA) April 29, 2022
Green had deeper ties to Phoenix than the time spent with the team from 2019-21. He played for Williams and with Paul on the New Orleans Hornets from 2010-11, then reunited with Paul on the Los Angeles Clippers in 2012-14.
“I don’t think people understand our relationship with me and Willie,” Paul said Thursday. “I’m not in Phoenix if not for Willie. He’s the first person who ever even knew about me even having a thought about coming to Phoenix. He a coach but that’s my teammate, my brother, first and foremost.
“It’s probably one of the weirdest things I’ve ever been a part of.”
Paul and Williams mentioned that the Suns’ draw of the Pelicans forced them to go radio-silent with Green.
That’s unusual. Williams mentioned that he and Green spoke frequently this season, especially about basketball as the Pelicans got off to that 1-12 start to the season.
“Willie Green is one of the more steady people I’ve ever been around. He was consistent and stable and strong through it all. It’s one of the reasons why they continued to get better,” Williams said.
Even the first-round series, though, couldn’t shut down all of their communications.
Green reached out briefly when Suns guard Devin Booker injured his hamstring in Game 2 of the series.
“(He) said, ‘Even though we’re competing, prayers up, I hope it heals quick,'” Booker said. “He’s just a standup guy, man, always has been. … I spent a lot of time on the court, picking his brain, understanding his IQ for the game and trying to learn from it.”
On Green’s side, being on the losing end of the Suns’ NBA Finals run a year ago gave him the first-hand experience of knowing how much it hurt. And with that, he knew how much this current Phoenix team would fight.
From a schematical standpoint, he gave the Suns fits all series. More pointedly, his attacking of Paul with fullcourt presses by rookies Herb Jones and Jose Alvarado gave Phoenix problems, stunting their offense and tiring out their 36-year-old point guard.
Paul ultimately broke through in the series-clincher, hitting all 14 of his field-goal attempts to push Phoenix into the second round.
“Don’t remind me of that right now,” Green told reporters after the game.
Green pushed Williams too, making the top-seeded team’s head coach the one needing to make reactionary moves throughout the series.
Phoenix’s rotations evolved to match New Orleans’ energetic, physical style. The Suns had to get more aggressive in their team-wide defensive gameplans to stop Brandon Ingram and McCollum, forcing star defender Mikal Bridges to see time on both of them by the end of the series.
The Suns spoke of the difficulty in a team running many of the same things that they run and vice versa.
Emotionally, the competitive aspects from the series were draining enough before even considering the relationship ties.
“There was tons of emotions with this game,” Williams said. “I’m glad we won but I know what it’s like to be on the other side. I felt for Willie but I’m elated for our team. There’s just this weird back-and-forth with my feelings and my heart. I’m just grateful to get this win.”
Added Paul on a final comment from his postgame press conference: “I always tell people: If you tell me something bad about Willie, you’re telling me something bad about yourself. Straight up. If you come up to me and say something crazy about Willie, I know where I stand with you.”